If only Mike Ashley had listened to Rafa Benitez at Newcastle

Even West Ham United have won a game, but Rafa Benitez isn't worried '“ yet.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 17th September 2018, 12:00 pm
Arsenal's Granit Xhaka scores his side's first goal of the game at St James's Park.
Arsenal's Granit Xhaka scores his side's first goal of the game at St James's Park.

The Premier League table doesn’t look good for second-bottom Newcastle United, so why isn’t Benitez worried?

Many fans are concerned. They have been concerned since the summer, when owner Mike Ashley refused to back Benitez in the transfer market.

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka scores his side's first goal of the game at St James's Park.

Benitez had hoped to build on last season’s 10th-placed finish, but he quickly had to accept that top-flight would be the club’s depressing, and all too familiar, target for the season.

Hundreds of fans protested against Ashley outside the club shop at St James’s Park before Saturday’s game against Arsenal, which ended in a 2-1 defeat.

The positivity of a few months ago is long gone. And that’s down to Ashley, who has the best man for the job at Newcastle in Benitez.

All he had to do was back his judgement in the transfer market. Ashley didn’t, and the club is facing up to another long, hard winter.

Nothing will change, it seems, as long as Ashley is in charge.

United over-achieved last season, but the club will find it harder to do that this season given the sums spent elsewhere.

Yet it has a chance thanks to Benitez and a committed group of players, who matched Arsenal for 45 minutes. Unai Emery’s side were unsettled by Newcastle, who pressed high up the pitch and challenged for every ball.

They targeted the space in behind right-back Hector Bellerin, and Jacob Murphy was gifted a run at goal by a slip from Shkodran Mustafi. Sokratis Papastathopoulos covered well to challenge the winger before he could shoot.

It was a different story after the break.

United lost captain Jamaal Lascelles, and they also lost control of the game. Arsenal netted through Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil.

Xhaka beat Martin Dubravka from 25 yards with a stunning free-kick, and Ozil netted from inside the box after Alexandre Lacazette had a shot blocked.

They never really looked like getting back into the game, though Ciaran Clark, on for Lascelles, netted a late consolation from a cross delivered by his defensive partner Federico Fernandez.

“We have to make sure we get that better,” said forward Ayoze Perez. “The first 15 minutes of the second half was not good at all. There was a lack of concentration and a lack of coordination as well.

“I think we were a little bit deep and we let them play. Against a top side that makes a difference. They were good, so you can’t let them play as comfy as we did.

“If you watched the first half, you’d think that we were going to get points. That was my feeling, but a game lasts 90 minutes.”

Benitez has repeatedly talked about being realistic and optimistic.

The realism comes from the fact that the club couldn’t compete with its rivals in the transfer market. They have what they have. And the optimism? That comes from the players, who fought so hard last season.

So far Newcastle have lost to four of last season’s top six by a single goal. They haven’t been well beaten, and they haven’t rolled over.

“We will be a better team and get points against other teams,” said Benitez, whose belief in his ability to improve this team over the coming weeks and months seems unshakable.

United can’t compete in transfer market, but he’s already seen enough to convince him that they can compete on the field. That’s why Benitez isn’t worried.